A Summer of Normalcy? It’s a Tall Order as New York City Restaurants Struggle.
At Sylvia’s Restaurant, a 59-year-old Harlem mainstay that rode out the shocks and shutdowns of the pandemic’s first year, the city’s return to full-capacity indoor dining this spring and summer has simply brought a new set of challenges.
Workers have been so hard to find, even after the restaurant raised wages, that the owners had to call in relatives from across the country to help. Indoor seating remains limited because they can’t serve all the tables. Breakfast has been put on pause. As food prices soar, customer favorites like the smothered beef short ribs have been taken off the menu.
New Yorkers began the summer with expectations of a grand reopening — tourists flocking to visit, curfews lifted, and dining and nightlife regaining their former effervescence. But many restaurants are still dealing with fallout from the Covid shutdowns, while scrambling to satisfy a public determined to enjoy a summer of normalcy.
“Everyone was like, ‘OK, restaurants, go ahead; you can open up again,’” said Tren’ness Woods-Black, an executive of Sylvia’s and a granddaughter of the founder, Sylvia Woods. “But it’s not as easy as flipping on a light switch.”
Though clearly recovering from the blows of the past year and a half, New York’s dining business faces a host of disruptions. Many of the part-time artists and actors who worked the city’s restaurants left town as cultural venues closed. Staff shortages have exhausted the remaining employees and curtailed service. Gaps in food supplies have resulted in stripped-down menus. And a crush of eager, sometimes impatient, diners is adding to the strain.
Responding to a surge in Delta variant cases the city announced Tuesday that it would require all restaurant employees and indoor-dining customers to show proof of vaccination, starting Aug. 16. Ms. Woods-Black, who appeared with the mayor at the announcement, said she supported the policy because she didn’t want to put anyone in danger, and Sylvia’s “can’t afford to get shut down again.” She said its revenues are half of what they were before Covid.
Andrew Ding, the owner of the Handpulled Noodle and three other restaurants in Manhattan, said he would gladly comply with the new vaccination protocols, but expects some resistance from diners and difficulty recruiting employees, if he needs to hire. “It is definitely more to place on my staff,” he said.
But the biggest concern for restaurateurs is that the Delta variant’s advance in coming months could imperil the rebound in revenue they had hoped for.
A Halting Comeback for Restaurant Jobs
The number of people employed by restaurants in New York City
Note: Data is not seasonally adjusted
Source: New York State Department of Labor
By The New York Times
There are ample signs that a resurgence has begun. Tables are packed at restaurants and bars across the city. Many places have expanded their capacity with new outdoor seating, thanks to the city’s Open Streets and Open Restaurant programs.
“It feels like every day is a weekend,” said Simone Tong, the chef of Silver Apricot, in the West Village. “The energy is back.”
With commercial retail rents in New York City at record lows, some restaurants are signing new leases. There have been 1,713 new restaurant permit applications from Jan. 1 through July 2, according to figures from the city health department (which also include renewals for existing restaurants).
Still, in 2019, the number of applications for roughly that same period was 2,388, and many owners say they’re a long way from the old normal.
“People think that because restaurants are allowed to be at 100 percent, and when they go into the restaurants, they’re full, that everything is fine,” said Jeffrey Bank, the chief executive of Alicart Restaurant Group, which owns Carmine’s and Virgil’s Real Barbecue. “And clearly it is not.”
The damage the pandemic has already done is coming into focus. Just before the state shut down indoor dining in March 2020, New York had more than 27,000 restaurants, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The department doesn’t yet have current figures, but Yelp, which tracks restaurant openings, shows there are now about 2,000 fewer. The city had 173,500 restaurant employees in June, a 38 percent drop from the 280,000 who were working in December 2019, according to the New York State Department of Labor.
More restaurants could be forced to close when the state’s moratorium on residential and commercial evictions ends on Sept. 1. A recent poll by the networking website Alignable indicated that 41 percent of the state’s small businesses could not pay their rent in July.
A City Stirs
As New York begins its post-pandemic life, we explore Covid’s lasting impact on the city.
- The Workers: We photographed more than 100 people who work in the service economy — cleaners, cooks, store clerks, fitness trainers — who were part of the hardest hit industries in the city.
- The Economy: New York’s prosperity is heavily dependent on patterns of work and travel that may have been irreversibly altered.
- The Epicenter: The neighborhoods in Queens where Covid hit the hardest are buzzing again with activity. But recovery feels far away.
- Dive Deeper: See all our stories about the reopening of N.Y.C.
While many restaurants recently received grants from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund, only about one-third of the more than 27,000 restaurants in New York State that applied for assistance got that lifeline.
At bottom, restaurateurs are grappling with the same predicament confronting nearly every business in America: the difficulty of finding workers. What makes the staffing shortage feel especially acute for New York restaurants is that many servers are artists, like Broadway actors or aspiring musicians. When both of their income sources — restaurants and entertainment — shut down or cut back, many left the city, or left the hospitality business altogether.
“Right now, we don’t have that same pool to pull from for employees,” said Mr. Bank, whose Virgil’s restaurant in Times Square recently reopened. He estimated that 70 percent of his company’s wait staff worked in entertainment before the pandemic.
While a number of restaurant owners said they had raised wages to attract new employees, workers say the gaps in staffing mean they work longer hours, juggle more tasks and incur the ire of customers upset about lapses in service.
“I am scared that I will run myself to the point where I am burnt out again so quickly, and I don’t know where the balance is anymore,” said Yige Sun, who manages the counter at Kit, a cafe in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
At Xi’an Famous Foods, a local chain that has not yet reopened its four locations in Midtown, wait times for food have increased as the staff has shrunk and customer traffic increases. Jason Wang, its chief executive, said his cooks are stretched thin and sometimes can’t meet the restaurant’s standard of a maximum 10-minute wait for each order. “It is just not humanly possible,” Mr. Wang said.
At other restaurants, staff shortages have forced the elimination of breakfast or lunch, limits on seating at busy times, and the scrapping of menu items that take too long to make when orders are piling up.
“I had a couple of items that were labor-intensive,” including a hand-rolled pasta and some desserts, said Philippe Massoud, the owner of Ilili, a Lebanese restaurant in NoMad that has 20 unfilled positions and has not reopened for lunch. “I don’t have the bandwidth to produce them, and until I have the manpower in the kitchen to do that, I’m better off without them.”
As revenue at many restaurants still lags below prepandemic levels, profit margins — which are thin even in good times — are being squeezed by rising costs. Robert Damasco, director of Pierless Fish, a prominent restaurant seafood supplier in Brooklyn, said prices of large sea scallops have surged to more than $30 a pound from $19 a pound in 2019, and the price of lobster has doubled. “I do feel bad, because restaurants are getting it on both sides,” he said. “They are getting it on the labor, and they are getting it on the food side.”
What’s worse is not being able to find supplies at all. Patrick Lin, an owner of the two Em Vietnamese Kitchen restaurants in Brooklyn, said he is paying twice as much for ribs as he did before the pandemic, while struggling to find cold-drink cups and takeout containers. “The past week, I was every morning going to Restaurant Depot, going to a few wholesalers,” he said, “and none of them had it.”
Landlords have offered varying degrees of sympathy. Several restaurant owners said that though they reached an impasse with their landlords at the start of the pandemic, negotiations to lower rents or sign new leases have recently begun.
“Nobody is looking at the old rents that we were paying and saying, ‘You have to pay that,’” said Danny Abrams, who shut the East Village location of his Mermaid Inn last fall but plans to reopen this fall. “Everybody has come down. But it took a while for some landlords to get there.”
Outdoor dining has been a rare bright spot since early in the pandemic, and hopes were high for the summer months. Instead, this June and July have been some of New York’s hottest and rainiest on record. “Whenever it rains, that kills half the business,” said Ms. Sun, of Kit. And “no one is sitting out there when it is 93, even with an umbrella.”
And while the city’s Open Streets program, in which some streets are closed to traffic on certain days, has been a boon for some restaurants, others feel left out.
Galo Fernando Cando, who owns the Ecuadorean restaurant Leticias, in Corona, Queens, wanted to apply, but was concerned about the inconsistent garbage pickup on his street, which he said worsened “tenfold” during the pandemic. “Tons of bags left in every corner” take up street space, attract rodents and make outdoor dining unpleasant, he said.
Restaurants in residential neighborhoods appear to have weathered the pandemic better than those in areas, like Midtown, that depend on tourists or office workers. By mid-July, only about a quarter of all office workers in the New York metro area had returned to work, according to Kastle Systems, an office security firm that gets data from 2,600 buildings in the United States. And while an estimated 10 million tourists were expected to visit the city this summer, that is a far cry from the 17.4 million that did in 2019, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism promotion agency.
A few weeks ago, Ms. Woods-Black, of Sylvia’s, had hoped the fall would bring better times. Her optimism is now tempered by the rise in cases of the Delta variant.
“Being in business as long as we have, we’re resilient, and we know how to be nimble,” she said. “But this is just a tough, tough time for all of us.”
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